Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein explores the concept of the “other”, scrutinizes the ways in which humans have historically viewed and treated those who are unfamiliar to us, and poses questions about how alienation is linked to monstrosity. Pointedly, the creature is an unnatural mixture of humans (that vary in sex, race, religious belief, and socioeconomic standing) and animals. His physical appearance is described as deformed and terrifying. To Victor and the De Lacey family, this makes him innately unlovable, resulting in his abandonment by those he wished to connect with the most. The creature challenges this belief that his nature is inherently evil, and insists that he was born benign and transformed into a monster through mistreatment: “I was benevolent and good, misery made me a fiend” (78). Through the creature’s desire to learn, connect with humans, and express his emotions, Shelley suggests that he is perhaps more human than his creator – in spite of the revenge-fueled murder spree he embarks on.
Like the creature, Safie is immediately distinguished as different upon her introduction, and is initially only referred to as “the Arabian”. Safie, and by extension, all women from Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures- are objectified by British society and viewed through a distorted lens of Orientalism. The framed narratives that the novel is composed of, the way Victor’s story is retold through Captain Walton’s letters, parallels how British people would receive information about the East. Safie and her father are “othered” in a similar fashion to the creature, but Safie’s contrasting beauty and ability to fulfill a social role gain her acceptance. Safie is treated as a reward for Felix coming to the aid of her father, and Shelley writes that “the prospect of marrying a Christian and remaining in a country where women were allowed to take a rank in society, was enchanting to her” (99). This perpetuates a false notion held by many colonialists – that women from the East, particularly Muslim women, were oppressed and barred from achievements by a backward or barbaric culture, whereas Western, white, Christian women lived in a society that embodied progressiveness. Safie is portrayed as an exception to this, enlightened solely due to the teachings of her mother, a Christian Arab who converted to Islam upon marrying Safie’s father and “spurned the bondage to which she was then reduced” (99). Racial undertones also can be noted within standards of beauty, and descriptions of Elizabeth, Safie, and the creature’s physical appearance. Elizabeth is described as having hazel eyes “that possessed an attractive softness”, with a figure that is “light and airy” (20). Her features reflect that she is fragile, pure, and kind. Safie, like the monster, has “hair of a shining raven black”, her eyes are “dark, but gentle”, and her skin is “wondrously fair” (93). She is close enough to appear European to be considered attractive, but there is an implied exoticness, something foreign and potentially dangerous about the darkness of her eyes and hair. The creature possesses some features that are individually pleasant, yet the focus is on the color of his “yellow” skin, his “watery” eyes, and “straight black” lips (39). These features are generally used to define race. By separating the creature from human beings by virtue of appearance, Victor is able to justify his disgust and abdicate his responsibility as a creator – beginning the tragic chain of events that leads to his downfall.
- “What is Orientalism?” Reclaiming Identity: Dismantling Arab Stereotypes. Arab American National Museum, January 2014.